The Jewish Theological Seminary professors who signed my diploma 50 years ago were names for the ages: Heschel, Kaplan, Lieberman, Finkelstein. As a student, I also studied with the likes of Baron, Scholem and notable junior profs. They all decided that I had learned enough to be called “rabbi, teacher and preacher.” I was skeptical. How did I ever pass their muster? In retrospect, I’m grateful that their greatest generosity was in allowing me to study not only with great scholars but also with great Jews.
During the 50 years since then — for a brief time in Argentina, and for 45 years in the same congregation in Metuchen, N.J. — I also learned much from the laity I served. What I know now, I did not know in June 1964.
First, the power of the core — Jewish continuity, outside of the Orthodox community — depends on the passion of the core, and not the tenuous engagement of the periphery. Since I graduated, the Jewish communal lexicon has added code words that would have baffled us then. Today’s verbal currency — outreach, engagement, big tent, post-denominational Judaism — expresses a redefined communal vision that aims to reach well beyond the most committed Jew to fold in those who peek in from the margins of our institutions. It is imperative to add lesser-committed and unaffiliated Jews simply to maintain a critical mass. Who can quarrel with that goal?
So beginning in the 1990s, activities were aimed at enticing the marginal Jew; they included Jewish films series in commercial theaters, Jewish literary events in bookstores, hosts in supermarket aisles to chat at holiday time, free seats in synagogues during the High Holy Days. I enthusiastically joined the effort, leading discussion groups at the JCC and the diner, teaching free classes for the unaffiliated, organizing salon meetings with members and their unaffiliated friends, participating in lots of Q-and-A sessions in informal settings. Only a few people showed up, and when they did, it was most often to drop in, sample, but not stay and reside.
Meanwhile, my core observers and learners flourished and increased. Shabbat morning services are now always overflowing. Fifteen to 20 teenagers regularly attend Shabbat and yom tov services. Between 100 and 150 lay people per year volunteer to read at least one Torah aliyah every few Shabbatot. Over 50 adults sign up annually for my Sunday morning lecture classes on a variety of Jewish subjects: Real Kabbalah; Talmud and Contemporary Issues; Flavors of American Judaism; Christianity, Islam and Judaism: Similarities and Differences. Some 35 to 40 percent of my congregants maintain kosher homes. Scores of our youth attend the various summer experiences sponsored by the Conservative movement.
So where should the resources, time and money of the synagogue, its rabbi and staff be most directed? They are best focused on the development of the core, not the periphery.
And on forging social bonds.
I learned at JTS to convey clearly the unique historical and theological approach of Conservative Judaism, especially as contrasted with Orthodox and Reform. I assumed that presentation would “sell” itself. Indeed, in the 1970s and ’80s my synagogue membership burgeoned from 350 to 650 family units. Why did that happen?
I discovered the social connections between one joiner and another was the magnet that drew, not the principles of our movement; as someone pointed out, belonging precedes believing. A warm welcome at the door and someone to sit with at kiddush, counted more than the rabbi’s d’var Torah. People affiliated because their friends did. Establishing social ties counted the most. The defining principles of the movement could wait.
On the day of my ordination 50 years ago, a Jewish publishing house gifted each new rabbi a silver kiddush cup inscribed with our initials and the date 6-7-64. That gift not only celebrated our being called “rabbi,” but also underlined our new status. I learned though, that the elevated position of the rabbi rests on his representing and interpreting an ancient and venerable religious tradition, not in his title. Sure, laity may relate to Jewish heritage in a variety of ways — by incorporating, admiring, respecting, saluting, declining or even disdaining it. But that heritage is an asset in the rabbi’s corner as he begins his service. If he deludes himself into thinking that people clap for him, he becomes a pompous fool. If she does not try in all her days to take advantage of that status by mediating that heritage to the laity, she has not done her job. Here, theology finally counts more than personal ties.
My professors at JTS taught me so much. I will share those insights with my successor, hoping it eases his mission.
Rabbi Gerald Zelizer is spiritual leader of Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen, N.J.